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The late ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was a close friend of mine, told me that one of the worst days of her life was the morning after the Israelis bombed the nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq. Her boss, President Ronald Reagan, summoned her to the floor of the UN General Assembly and told her, in no uncertain terms, that she must strongly condemn the attack, despite her knowing that someday America would be grateful to the Israelis for doing what they needed to do to defend themselves.

(January 25, 2021 / Newsweek

What Israel had to do to defend itself would one day serve to defend the free democratic world as a whole.

While on the campaign trail, President Joe Biden has made clear that he would like to renegotiate the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015.

We would all prefer to live in a world where diplomacy and negotiations could substitute for armed conflict. However, that is not the world we inhabit. There are some international actors that negotiate in good faith. There are others, however that use negotiations as a smokescreen behind which to hide malevolent intentions.

As the Iranians were negotiating the JCPOA with the P5+1 powers (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) in 2015, they had already begun building the heavily fortified Fordow uranium enrichment facility deep in the base of a mountain outside the holy city of Qom. In 2009, American, French and British intelligence revealed this facility to the outrage of Congress.

One of the many flaws of the 2015 nuclear agreement was that it let enrichment at Fordow continue, allowing the Iranians to convert it into a “nuclear research facility” with 1,044 of the 2,710 centrifuges continuing to spin. Iran had agreed not to enrich uranium there for 15 years.

International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspectors were never allowed in. That is because, under the Iranian understanding of the JCPOA, the inspectors were not to be allowed into any military base. In the entirety of the JCPOA, there was never a single word of this mentioned in English. That is because in October 2015 the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, made the JCPOA weaker when it voted on an amendment that, among other things, prohibited IAEA inspectors from entering any military installation. This provision was never sent back to the other signatories of the JCPOA for approval.

Because of that amendment, if the Iranians wanted to hide something from the IAEA, all they would have to do is hang a sign on a site where nuclear activity is conducted calling it a “military base.”

No one should be surprised, therefore, that the Iranians have announced their intention to enrich uranium to a 20 percent level at Fordow. Reaching 20 percent is a challenge, and from there is just an easy slide to the level of highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear bomb.

If that didn’t sufficiently tell the story of Iranian duplicity, Mossad’s daring 2018 raid on a warehouse in Tehran does. The Israeli intelligence agency made off with a tremendous cache of documents that clearly indicate that, despite a U.S. intelligence estimate that Iran had ended its work on a nuclear weapon in 2003, the Iranians never stopped working on their nuclear project, and had plans to continue it way beyond the signing of the 2015 agreement.

This might come as a disappointment for those who believe that all we have to do to rein in the Iranians is negotiate a better deal. A good deal would assume that the party on one side of the negotiating table has the same basic objectives as the other. Making a deal does not work when the objectives of the two parties completely differ.

Ayatollah Khamenei has reiterated many times that Iran will not renegotiate the nuclear treaty with the United States. If Iran’s supreme leader does not want negotiations, no Iranian would dare negotiate in good faith. No amount of wishful thinking on America’s part would make it so.

It was a relief to hear Tony Blinken, who is likely to be confirmed as Secretary of State, say in a Senate hearing this week that the Biden administration is “a long way” from returning to negotiations with Iran, and that he plans to first consult with Israel and the Gulf states. That corrects a cardinal mistake of the Obama administration, which lost no opportunity to show the Iranians how anxious (read “desperate”) it was to make a deal.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he wants to go back to the JCPOA or resume negotiations with Iran, but would correct some of the known weak points of the deal, such as its many sunset clauses, and to include a prohibition against missile development.

However, in Wednesday’s Tehran Times, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif said, “We agreed from the beginning [of nuclear negotiations] that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA,” adding, “The [missile] issue was raised but we refused to negotiate over it, and we paid a price for not talking.”

Mr. Blinken also said he wanted “a longer and stronger deal,” but according to Mr. Zarif, “The scheduling…was one of the longest issues during the negotiations and it is impossible to renegotiate it. Americans need to abdicate this idea that they have always had and say, ‘What I have is mine and what you have can be negotiated.’ If this idea has influenced other countries, it will not influence the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

We wish the new American administration luck. However, we have to remember that for Americans these issues are theoretical. The United States is blessed to be surrounded by two liquid assets: the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Atlantic Ocean to the East.

Israel is not so blessed.

President Biden likes to tell the story of how, in 1973, as a young senator, he was engaged in conversation with Prime Minister Golda Meir. When they posed for a photo, the prime minister turned to the young senator and said, “Senator, you look so worried.” He responded, “Well, my God, Madam Prime Minister,” and turned to look at her, saying, “The picture you paint.” She said, “Oh, don’t worry. We have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs: You see, we have no place else to go.”

Americans are sick and tired of long engagements in the Middle East. No one could blame them. They have buried far too many young men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have learned that getting out is much more complicated than going in. Even President Trump said he wanted to end “endless wars” in the Middle East. So, America’s attention will first be directed elsewhere, like to China.

Meanwhile, the Israelis feel the growing isolationism and retrenchment of the United States, and watch with trepidation as the Iranians amass 12 times the agreed-upon limit of highly enriched uranium and begin to make uranium metal that can only be used for only one purpose: a nuclear weapon.

For Israelis the problem is existential. They know that they are the low-hanging fruit in the region. Israel lacks the strategic depth for more than one or two bombs. Israel also knows that once a nation crosses the line into nuclear weapons, it can act with total impunity.

We should not be surprised, therefore, if we wake up one morning to find that Israel has taken it upon itself to rid the world of the strategic nightmare of an Iran that has crossed the nuclear threshold.

Nor should we be surprised when an American ambassador to the United Nations is asked to condemn Israel, once again, in the General Assembly (while privately feeling relieved).

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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